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How outdated Mormon teachings may be abetting ‘rape culture’

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' temple is pictured in Salt Lake City on Jan. 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Urquhart *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MORMON-RAPE, originally transmitted on May 10, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Better dead clean, than alive unclean.

That Mormon mantra apparently was ringing in a young Brigham Young University student’s mind in 1979 as she leapt from a would-be attacker’s car on the freeway.

Being raped, the student believed, would rob her of “virtue” — virginity — a prize she could never regain. Her life would be over, so why not jump?

This message was preached repeatedly by LDS leaders of that era and in a widely read church volume by President Spencer W. Kimball, “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” It was encapsulated in a 1974 LDS First Presidency statement, which asserted that only if a woman resisted an attacker “with all her strength and energy” would she not be “guilty of unchastity.”

It was taught to each new generation through the decades, often presuming rape was somehow consensual sex — and placing much of the blame on women.

Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes a healthier approach in its official pronouncements.

Rape victims “often suffer serious trauma and feelings of guilt” and “are not guilty of sin,” Handbook 1 for local lay leaders states. “Church leaders should be sensitive to such victims and give caring attention to help them overcome the destructive effects of abuse.”

But old ideas can be tough to quash.

In modern Mormon-speak, young women still are taught that “virtue” remains nearly synonymous with chastity.

Mormon women, especially at LDS-owned schools, continue to be bombarded with the notion that they are at least partially responsible for sexual assaults by what they wear or do, or how hard they fight back.

Recently, several Brigham Young University students who reported they were raped were investigated by the school’s strict Honor Code Office for other violations leading up to their assault, such as drinking, staying out late or being in guys’ rooms.

Critics such as Michael Austin, a Mormon and BYU graduate who works as provost and vice president of academic affairs at Newman University, a Catholic college in Wichita, Kan., says colleges must reject some long-standing presumptions, including the belief that women are responsible for men’s sexual behavior, that they lie about their experiences to escape accountability or that they would always be safe if they simply obeyed church or school standards.

Some Mormons “came right out and blamed women for breaking rules,” he writes in a post for the LDS blog By Common Consent, “with the clear implication that getting raped is the punishment they deserve because they are, you know, sinners.”

More troubling, Austin says, is that such attitudes echo what young Latter-day Saints learn at church about modesty, sexuality and gender.

“I can trace what my daughter is learning in Young Women” — the LDS organization for girls ages 12 to 17 — “and what is playing out at BYU.”

Double bind

Though Mormon teachings call on both genders to be chaste before marriage, too often LDS men and women hear different messages about sex, says Chicago-based Mormon therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife.

Men are told they have a natural sex drive, which is inherent to being male, she says.

“They are the actors in sexual situations, but they are also taught they can’t control it.”

Women, on the other hand, get the idea that they may be sexual beings but don’t have desire the way men do, Finlayson-Fife says. “Femininity is constructed as nonsexual.”

They are the “sober drivers” in these interactions, she says, “more responsible for any sexual interactions by the way they dress, behave and setting limits on when to stop.”

LDS women are expected to be “nice,” “deferential” and “accommodating to men’s needs,” but also are responsible for “fending off men’s advances,” the therapist says. “It’s a double bind.”

And, she says, these dynamics play out again and again in Mormon relationships.

Consider the case of Meagan Leyva, a first-year student at BYU in January 2014 when she began seeing a 25-year-old returned Mormon missionary who attended nearby Utah Valley University and lived in BYU housing.

“He had me over, late at night. We were messing around a little bit,” Leyva recalls. “It felt a little off, and I kept telling him, ‘I don’t want to have sex. I don’t want to have sex’ … and then it was happening.”

She felt “violated,” she says, and yet also guilty.

She was breaking Honor Code rules by being in his apartment, especially late at night, Leyva says. “If I hadn’t done that, this wouldn’t have happened. So the blame sort of fell back on me. It felt wrong. I knew (what he did) was wrong, but I knew I was in the wrong, too.”

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not name sexual-assault victims, but Leyva agreed to be identified.

By the time she left her attacker’s place, she says, it was 4 or 5 a.m.

“It was January and freezing, obviously. … I was carrying my shirt and my bra with me. I was just wearing a sweatshirt I had worn. … It was snowing. … It just felt so ironic because it was so white and so pure, and here I was, not pure anymore.”

Leyva says she didn’t report the assault to police because it wasn’t until months later that she realized what had occurred to her amounted to rape.

Mormons are quick to blame the woman in encounters like Leyva’s, Finlayson-Fife says.

“We want to look away from human cruelty. We want to believe somehow it was deserved or such women had it coming. … We want to think a woman like that had more control than she had. That makes us all feel better.”

The Chicago therapist would like to see Honor Code infractions disconnected from sexual-assault allegations.

“We want victims to come forward,” she says, “and perpetrators removed.”

In addition, Finlayson-Fife is adamant that Mormon views of repentance should have no place in a rape investigation for victims. Not all LDS bishops, however, understand the distinction.

A disturbing message

Spencer W. Kimball, beloved by many, published “Miracle of Forgiveness” in 1969.

The loss of chastity is “far-reaching,” Kimball wrote. “Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. … It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”

In 1998, an 18-year-old Mormon convert in New York was raped by her boyfriend.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, was terrified that her Catholic parents might kill him if she told them. So she went to her LDS bishop, seeking money for a pregnancy test.

He gave her the money — and a copy of “Miracle.”

The now-36-year-old says she was “disfellowshipped” by the bishop, who had known her since her baptism four years earlier. She was forbidden from taking the sacrament, or Communion, speaking in church, serving in a church position or performing temple rituals.

“I was blindsided,” she says. “I was a Molly Mormon. All I wanted was a beautiful white wedding and kids. The rapist robbed me of all of that.”

The woman, who now lives in Salt Lake City, says she had trouble enough forgiving herself, but Kimball’s book made it worse.

Such a misguided response to sexual assaults is still happening on Mormon campuses and elsewhere.

Reversing shame

Austin, the university administrator in Kansas, insists it’s time Mormons reverse their use of shame.

Shame is a powerful cultural tool to use in enforcing norms, he says, “but we’ve made victims feel ashamed and not predators.”

Instead, he says, men need to be “shamed” for objectifying women, for refusing to be accountable and for any coercive actions.

Retired BYU physics professor Kent Harrison, who has been working since 1979 to shift attitudes at his Provo school and in his faith, believes approaches to rape have changed over time.

“My impression is that the old attitude — better dead than a nonvirgin — is mostly gone,” he says. “But the issue of rape is still not talked about much in General Conference or on the church website.”

He would like to see more leaders in the Young Women and all-female adult Relief Society discuss sexual issues openly, especially as they address the Utah-based church’s expanding female membership across the globe.

Even Mormonism’s most famous rape victim, Elizabeth Smart, had internalized feelings of self-loathing when she was routinely assaulted by her captor.

Smart didn’t try to escape as a 14-year-old, she later told national audiences, because she felt like a “chewed-up piece of gum; nobody rechews a piece of gum, you throw it away” — repeating an analogy she had heard growing up.

The poised 28-year-old wife, mother and activist now knows that comparison is flawed — and that someone’s “virtue” cannot be stolen.

(Peggy Fletcher Stack and Erin Alberty write for The Salt Lake Tribune)

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  • This is reprehensible and inexcusable. What is the punishment for the old men who try to blame the girl or woman? And the old men who are actually encouraging the boys to rape because “they can’t help it.” What is their punishment? Are they removed from teaching or supervisory positions? Are they forced to return to classes to remedy their painful ignorance?

    Surely there are consequences for those who enable these terrible assaults. Surely?

  • This is a biased hit piece. Both men and women in the Church are taught to exercise self-control. There is nothing in LDS teaching that condones sexual violence against anyone. The doctrines have to be twisted in profound ways to reach the conclusions the authors reach.

  • Mormon Stories Podcast just had a great episode about sexual violence and rape. It addresses numerous misconceptions held by men and women, and also clearly defines “consent”. No longer does it fall to the victim to say.” No”. Rather, everyone should say, “Hell yes” and do a high-five when consenting. Episode link:

  • I grew up Mormon and this piece is pretty spot-on. I don’t see any twisting of doctrine.

  • For the past 13 years I have been part of this church and i have never been taught that women are more responsible then men for chastity.

  • Rape is significantly lower in Mormon universities, apparently some think that is not acceptable. Perhaps if more Mormon women were raped, Mormons would not be considered so “outated”. World looks for all kinds of ways to make Mormons more like they are, more rape, less responsibility, less virtue. And there are some that simply go along with the crowd in the large building urging them to be, like them.

  • It is a hit piece. And yes, they do twist the doctrine. The authors want you to talk about how bad Mormons are, even as the rape culture (ie a culture where rape is more common) seems more prevalent in the cultures of those who want Mormons to be like them. Orwell is laughing at the irony.

  • Wasn’t that guy excommunicated for teaching false Mormon teachings? Just wondering about fake Mormons giving fake Mormon stories.

  • I’ve listened to every single episode of Mormon Stories… so… I can say that John Dehlin is definitely NOT a “fake Mormon”. He was a devoted, Mormon, and even as he started questioning his faith and the teachings of the Mormon church, he tried to stay active in the church. I think he may still identify, culturally, as a Mormon. He was excommunicated, but not for false teachings. Rather, he told the truth. His actions were unacceptable to “the church”. There are numerous episodes that discuss his excommunication in great detail. About this episode dealing with rape and sexual violence, John’s is just one voice. The other contributors to this program are the most important, and experienced, with regard to rape, consent, the influence of Mormon culture/faith, etc. I found the program to be beneficial to my own understanding (and I’m a mental health professional).

  • I would be curious to know the statistics for rape on college campuses, generally, and on “religious” campuses specifically. As you know, however, less than 40% of rapes or sexual crimes are reported, and this statistic tends to grow in environments where people are not suppose to have sex of any kind, or engage in some known risk factors like drinking or using drugs. And, from an article I just read about rape on college campuses: “More than 50% of the women who reported some of the most serious incidents, including forced penetration, didn’t report it because they didn’t think it was “serious enough,” according to the survey. Others said they didn’t come forward because they were embarrassed, ashamed or thought it would be too emotionally difficult or that they didn’t think anything would be done about it.” They are correct about nothing being done about it. Very few cases are prosecuted. Here is a great start for learning more: It is VERY important to eliminate violence of any kind, and I appreciate whatever our schools do to protect students, staff, teachers, etc.

  • I am sure John Dehlin will presume he has done no wrong. I took the opportunity to listen to one of his stories and I am amazed at how he leaves out relevant facts to weave his own dogma. Worst kine of divisive individual. The discussions regarding his excommunication are from him, so it is safe to presume he will paint himself in the various colors of martyrdom. One supposes he has the right to repent, and of course rejoin, but why should he, he’s never believed in the doctrine. No one should invite a viper into the room. They are meant to stay outside.

  • Alma 39:5 and Moroni 9:8-10 should both be recognized as just as ugly, false and putrid as any of the obscene nonsense taught by 20th century Mormon apostles and prophets that are rooted in those grotesque verses. Any honest Mormon who can correctly judge how wrong those 20th century prophets were should be able to make the same judgment of Book of Mormon prophets…..

    David O. McKay quoted by Spencer Kimball: ” . . . Your virtue is worth more than your life. Please young folk, preserve your virtue even if you lose your lives.”

    Spencer Kimball: “Also far-reaching is the effect of loss of chastity. Once given <or taken or stolen it can never be regained. …If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is absolutely no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.”

    Restitution in full is not possible. Also, having robbed one of virtue, it is impossible to give it back.”
    – President Spencer W. Kimball, General Conference, Ensign, November 1980

    “You will recall Alma’s teaching his son Corianton that unchastity is the most serious offense there is in the sight of God, save murder or denying the Holy Ghost… Some years ago the First Presidency said to the youth of the Church that a person would be better dead clean than alive unclean… I remember how my father impressed the seriousness of unchastity upon my mind. He and I were standing in the railroad station at Rexburg, Idaho, in the early morning of 12 November 1920. … “My son, you are going a long way from home…. But remember this, my son: we would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue…. .”
    I pondered his statement at the time. I did not then have the full understanding of it that my father had, but I remembered it every time I approached temptation. I understand it better now, and I feel the same way about my sons and grandsons as he felt about me….. Better die chaste than live unchaste. The salvation of your very souls is concerned in this.’” (Marion G. Romney, “We Believe in Being Chaste,” Ensign, September 1981).

    It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle.” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, 196).

    “…President Clark, in a conference address in October 1938, said: ‘Chastity is fundamental to our life and to our civilization. If the race becomes unchaste, it will perish… You young people, may I directly entreat you to be chaste. Please believe me when I say that chastity is worth more than life itself. This is the doctrine my parents taught me; it is truth. It is better to die chaste than to live unchaste. The salvation of your very souls is concerned in this.’ “
    -LDS First Presidency Message “We Believe in Being Chaste,” Ensign, Sept. 1981, 3

    “Loss of virtue is too great a price to pay even for the preservation of one’s life — better dead clean, than alive unclean. Many is the faithful the Latter-day Saint parent who has sent a son or a daughter on a mission or otherwise out into the world with the direction: ‘I would rather have you come back in a pine box with your virtue than return alive without it.’” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 124.)

    “…There is no true Latter-day Saint who would not rather bury a son or daughter than to have him or her lose his or her chastity — realizing that chastity is of more value than anything else in all the world.” (Heber J. Grant, Gospel Standards, 55)

    “The victim must do all in his or her power to stop the abuse….Otherwise the seeds of guilt will remain and sprout into bitter fruit.”
    – Apostle Richard G. Scott “Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse,” General Conference, Ensign, May 1992

  • I’ve been a member for the last 43 years, and I absolutely have been taught that women are more responsible than men for chastity. Attempts were made to teach that same nonsense to my daughters (and my sons), but I shut that down right away.

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